For my little brother/Freed

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Together as One
For my little brother by Enoch Leung
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A guard tapped on the bars of the cell with his baton. "Garrett Tañag?" he called out.

I looked up. "Yes sir."

"You've an important visitor. And it's not your mother." He unlocked the door and motioned for me to come out.

I looked at Ricky. "I'll be right back," I said as I rose to leave.

The guard led me through the prison in relative silence. He said nothing to me, nothing insulting, although nothing positive either. He led me to a room, bare except for a table and two chairs seated across from each other. In one chair was a Caucasian woman, blonde hair tucked up neatly into a bun. Her skin was slightly wrinkled, presumably from age. She had blue eyes which lit up immediately when they saw me. "Hello, Garrett," she said warmly. "Please have a seat in that chair over there."

I sat down, still not knowing what was really going on. I didn't know who she was, or how she even knew my name. Without hesitation, she began to talk. "My name is Gloria Chapman," she began, her voice bearing signs of her age, yet still sounding strong and confident. "I'm a retired journalist and news reporter for the BBC. Recently, I've taken an interest in the Philippines, and I've been trying to raise awareness about the street children population in this city. It is depressing work sometimes, but nothing brings me more joy than being able to offer help, even a little, to those in need. I also love the smiles I get in this country, and if smiles were used as currency in this world, the Philippines would certainly be the richest of all.

"My travels have taken me to Smokey Mountain, which I found quite a shock to witness. I know you live near there, so I'll spare you the gory details... but oh, how terrible it must be! I went around meeting the locals, and as always, the hospitality I received was heartwarming. Among the families I chatted with included your mother and your younger brother. I was writing a blog post on Smokey Mountain, so I interviewed the people there. Your mother, at first, claimed that your younger brother was an only child, but he teared up so greatly, I knew there was something deeper. I didn't mean to get personal, but your mother eventually told me about your father, your older brother, and you. Your younger brother — I believe his name was Evan — found it within him to tell me that you were his favourite person, that you entered a life of crime so that you could find him the money to go back to school, and how he saw you in this prison. At the end, I couldn't help but brush a few tears from my own eyes as well."

She paused, and with a handkerchief, dabbed at her damp eyes. I could tell that these tears were genuine, not the fake drama llama tears found on television. Hearing about my brother stirred up the emotions within me, and I fought back tears of my own.

She sniffled. "Your brother's story really touched my heart, and it got me interested. I spoke with your mother, and while she seemed reluctant at first, she eventually agreed to let me find a way to get you freed. I've been negotiating with the prison warden for some time now, and he's agreed to let you go in exchange for 40,000 pesos. I personally believe that you are not a bad child, that you are no criminal. You had no foul intentions, and in the end, you only wanted to help your brother. I believe freeing you is perfectly justified."

40,000 pesos?! "That's a lot for us to pay off!" I exclaimed. "I don't want to cause any trouble..."

She smiled. "You do not have to repay me," she responded, "except by, perhaps, doing as your mother and your brother — especially your brother, he's so sweet — requested."

"What is it?"

"They've asked for you to stay at home. They're both aware of what you did, and honestly, I don't know many people — especially children — who would risk their lives for someone they cared for in the way you did. But we've all agreed that the best you can do is to be there for your brother. He's so young, after all, and it's hard for me to see him cry. Imagine the torture your mother has to endure seeing him cry every day."

How could I say 'No' to my brother? It seemed like a fair deal to me. "I..." The tears I had been holding back for so long were beginning to win over as the realization of what I had been praying for to happen for so many months now was becoming a reality. I was going home.

Home... To the landfill, the slum, eating pagpag... But home! To my brother. My little brother...

"Is there anything else you would like?" she asked, not unkindly. "Any questions? A request? Something to eat, drink?"

I brushed a hand across my eyes. "Can... can I see an inmate in this prison? Just one last time?"

The door swung open. I turned around to see Ricky entering the room, a guard behind him. "You have five minutes," the guard said before closing the door.

"You wished to see me?" Ricky asked.

I nodded, getting out of the chair. "A woman just came to see me, having talked with my mother and my brother. She's..." I looked over my shoulders and whispered, "...bribed the warden to let me out. I'll being going home soon after this, after all these months in here. Looks like I'll be able to keep the promise I made to my brother after all."

He was silent for a few moments. "I guess you're happy," he said soberly.

"Maybe, until I thought of you. I'm going free while you're still stuck here. I'm going home guilty, thinking about how you deserve freedom more than I do. After all, I was the one who ran from home even when there was food on the table. I ran even though I had a healthy relationship with my mother and my brother. I really didn't have to leave to begin with, really didn't have to steal or anything to get by. You, on the other hand, had no choice. You ran because your father drove you out. You stole in order to feed your siblings. You didn't even have a solid roof to sleep under. If you simply sat around and stayed home, who knows what might've happened to you?"

He sighed. "You're right about that. I don't even know how my sister and my brother are doing on their own — without me. If there's anything I want to do right now, it's to see them, talk to them, let them know I'm still alive and that I'm still fighting."

"I'll fight with you," I said. "I'll do whatever I can to at least bring them to you, at most I'll try to get you out of here. If I can't do that, I'll look after the two for you. It's the least I can do."

He hugged me. It caught me by surprise, and it took me a few seconds for me to realize what had happened. "Thank you," he said in a barely audible whisper. "It's the first in a long list of 'Thank yous' I have. Thank you for being bold and breaking the ice between us. Thank you for listening to me when I needed someone to talk to. Thank you for bringing me to Jesus. Thank you for... just being here. You are a true friend, Garrett."

I hugged him back comfortingly. "I have to thank you as well. You're the only one in this prison that I felt comfortable talking to, and I'm glad we could get this close. After I saw my mother and brother leaving me, I thought I had lost my purpose in life, and I wanted to just die. You helped me realize that I had so much more to do, and that I still have so much more within me. You are a true friend, Ricky; you brought my life back on track."

He released me and patted me on the shoulder. "Go home to your mother and your brother. Be there for them. Don't leave them; they need you more than ever. I'll get by in this prison; I'll survive. I still tell myself every day that I am strong, that I am tough."

I nodded. "I'll do whatever I can to help you and your two siblings. It doesn't matter how far apart we are, or whether or not one of us is imprisoned. Our friendship topples any physical barrier. Just don't forget about me."

He laughed. "Even a blow to my head won't shake any memory I have of you."

I got serious again. "Take care of yourself now, Ricky. Don't go getting into any fights with the other boys around here. You have to be strong for your sister and your brother. You're too valuable to be wasted getting kicked and abused. The scar on your face should remind you of the price you've paid."

"Take care of yourself too, Garrett. The last thing your brother needs is to see you behind bars again. Don't go getting yourself arrested again so you can be with me; that's absurd."

I lowered my head to hide a grin. "I'm not crazy enough to do that."

The guard opened the door. "Time's up!" he barked. "Prisoner, it's time to go back to your cell."

We hugged one last time. "Godspeed, Garrett," he said as he turned around to leave.

"Godspeed to you too, Ricky."

He gave me a smile and a wink as he exited the room, the guard following behind him. I knew for sure that this wasn't the last time we would see each other.

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Together as One
For my little brother by Enoch Leung
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